Is it time for General Absolution?

In 1862, Father William Corby probably performed the most famous instance of General Absolution in the history of the United States.  According to the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Antietam:

Leading off the fourth attack of the day against the sunken road was the Irish Brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher. As they advanced with emerald green flags snapping in the breeze, a regimental chaplain, Father William Corby, rode back and forth across the front of the formation shouting words of conditional absolution prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church for those who were about to die. (Corby would later perform a similar service at Gettysburg in 1863.) The mostly Irish immigrants lost 540 men to heavy volleys before they were ordered to withdraw.

Paul Wood’s famous 1891 painting “Absolution under Fire” of the scene also has an interesting story of its own.

However today the Church in common with much of humanity is facing a different type of war. I am writing from Ireland where parishes have been more or less shut down by the Coronavirus response. In many other countries Masses have been canceled and I imagine that these shutdowns will increase over the coming days.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law allows for General Absolution under very defined circumstances, and the practice has been very frowned upon by many of those in authority.  I personally greatly value the Sacrament of Reconciliation and I do see a great value in the opportunity to personally approach a confessor and individually confess my sins.  However, I think that we are rapidly approaching a situation which fulfills the requirements of Canon 961:

Can. 961 §1. Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless:

1/ danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;

2/ there is grave necessity, that is, when in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available to hear the confessions of individuals properly within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own. Sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be present due only to the large number of penitents such as can occur on some great feast or pilgrimage.

2. It belongs to the diocesan bishop to judge whether the conditions required according to the norm of §1, n. 2 are present. He can determine the cases of such necessity, attentive to the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops.

I know that there is no more of a priest shortage today than there was a few months ago. Yet in many areas people are afraid to approach their priests.  Another consideration that we ought to think about is that  many priests in the Western World are of an older generation and are the ones most at risk from the Coronavirus.  Admittedly some areas (such as Italy, Spain and France) are under complete lockdown and not even General Absolution is possible. But in many places it is still possible to have smaller gatherings inside and slightly larger ones outside as long as people keep a safe distance from each other.

Canon Law tells us that it is for the bishop to decide if the requirements for General Absolution have been met. Admittedly there are many other aspects of General Absolution that could be discussed from a legal, theological and pastoral point of view. But I don’t think this is the moment for these discussions. Yet it is a moment when I believe that bishops should be seriously thinking of granting their priests the opportunities to impart this form of the Sacrament. There are other things that we can and should be doing, many places may still have the possibility of individual Confession, but surely it is in our best interests to deploy all of the sacramental weapons that we have at our disposal, including General Absolution.


  1. One thing to consider, many penitents still opt to confess through a screen (at many parishes in my area this is still the only option), which greatly mitigates the risk of a penitent passing on a contagion to the priest or vice versa. The danger is most present when a penitent confesses face to face.

    1. Greatly is overstating the case. The screen is hardly a mask, at least any confessional screens I’ve encountered (I normally confess anonymously, to reduce visual distraction). It does act as a reminder of separation, but it’s main value is that it may act as a visual cue that the two people don’t need to aim speech and breath directly at one another, but even better would be what is common in many reconciliation rooms, which is a solid partition that does not prevent audible back and forth.

      Remember the handles.

    2. Nonsense. You can sneeze and cough straight through a grille. The touching of furniture and fabrics can pass the virus from one penitent to the next. The virus lives on surfaces for three hours or more. The confessor touches the door, the slide (if any), the grille, everything. The two are closer typically through a screen or grille than they are face to face. What are you thinking by suggesting this is safer? Your mouth is literally next to his ear. In settings face to face, at least it’s clear that chairs are to be placed a safe distance away. We shouldn’t encourage a false confidence by saying that a grille will protect penitents from the virus or prohibit its passage.

      1. Not to mention germs stay on screen and surrounding wood which makes it risky for the next person coming in and kneeling in the same place with their hands near the screen.

      2. BUT…it depends on the screen. Some are just a grate-like structure, as Rita described, and would provide as much Covid protection as confessing face-to-face. (Which is to say, none.) However, some churches have an opaque plastic sheathing with holes, which would actually afford a much higher degree of protection. (It probaly would be a good idea to spray down the sheathing after confessions have been heard.)
        Of course, Covid is rapidly going away now (in 2022), so maybe this entry might be somewhat moot.

  2. Still need physical presence for general absolution so I don’t see how it helps here. It isn’t time we lack, it’s the ability to be present.

    1. Our parish cancelled Masses. My hubbie and I were talking that maybe our priest could celebrate The Holy Sacrifice Of The Mass outside and also outdoor general absolution if the bishop agrees.
      Should we ask Father? We do not want to add any undue stress to our pastor as he is running two parishes by himself at this point.

      1. Lots of logistical issues with outside Mass. but the concern is that a large number of people are close to each other. Last I heard they are not cancelling sporting events, concerts and other public gathering ONLY if they are indoors.

  3. Thank you Mr. Janiga for your reply. Hadn’t thought of the problems you brought up with outdoor Mass. However, the faithful could be asked to bring lawn chairs and sit apart from each other. Also, spiritual Communion only for now. It could be done at our Parish cemetery. Just a thought. Blessed St. Patrick’s Day to all!

    1. Contacted our Pastor today and unfortunately that cannot be done at this time. He did like the idea though. Thank you again.

  4. I read in today’s (London) Tablet that Joseph Toal Bishop of Motherwell has allowed General Absolution in his Diocese on St. Joseph’s Day, his letter to priests is quoted in the Tablet:

    “This can only be used in exceptional circumstances, which is clearly the case at present,” the bishop writes in a letter seen by The Tablet. “I recognise also that those who attend Daily Mass would probably wish to go to Confession before Easter, and that will be difficult in the weeks ahead. By celebrating the Sacrament in this way, they are receiving the consolation of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness as they face this prolonged period without Mass and Holy Communion. If someone present at Mass tomorrow is living with grave sin they are still required to make an individual confession as soon as possible.”

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